Wishing you all a very happy Durga Puja: with an excerpt from my novel ‘Across Borders’.
Chapter 3 – ‘The Home That Adopted Me’ (Page 71-74)
Every year during the Durga Puja, Ronjit uncle gave all women of the extended-family a sari each. I wore mine with a flourish, for the anjali or collective offering of flower and prayers conducted by the priest on each of the five days.
With my ardour for dancing, I started the dhunuchi dance, in offering to the deity. Taking the earthen pot with burning incense by the handle, I brandished it gracefully. I danced with agility in front of the goddess Durga and her four children – Kartik, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Saraswati, to the beats of the dhak, the traditional drums. My dance recital was well appreciated by all and even today it is customary for the students of the school to perform a collective dhunuchi dance during Durga Puja. The temple where the Puja was conducted was initially built of mud about two hundred years back by our ancestors. It is currently a concrete building in the central porch of the family’s homes alongside the river.
One year when I did not show up for the arati on Ashtami, the second and important day of the Durga Puja, Ronjit uncle stormed at his wife Mrinalini, “Where is Maya? Why is she not dancing?”
“She cannot dance today,” Mrinalini crisply replied, close to his ears.
“But, why not” Ronjit uncle retorted impatiently, “she is here somewhere, I just saw her. So why can’t she dance?”
“Maya is here, but cannot come to the temple,” Mrinalini replied firmly looking into her husband’s eyes, imploring him to understand. But when there was no sign of his comprehension, she added briskly, “she is menstruating and cannot come into the temple for the Puja.”
“What nonsense,” Ronjit uncle shot back at his wife, enraged.
“Ma” he said, in reference to Goddess Durga, “is a woman, isn’t she? Then why follow these stupid customs restricting her daughters to her presence? You people make a mockery of womanhood and what Ma represents.”
I was summoned immediately. Mrinalini knew better than to refute her husband’s wishes. In minutes, draped in the silk sari Ronjit uncle had given me, I was at the temple dhunuchi in hand. As I danced to the sounds of the dhaks that evening, I mentally offered my arati to Ronjit uncle for his broadmindedness and respect for women, for attempting to liberate us from traditions imposed on us down the ages.
That morning he possibly also faced the reality that the little girl he had brought with him five years back had come of age and was now a woman. Ronjit uncle celebrated Durga Puja fervently and lavishly, as he was in reality celebrating Womanhood – the source of life, perhaps in memory of his own mother who had died at childbirth. He lived his life trying to fulfil his dream of the emancipation of women, especially rural woman, starting at home with his own family.
This forward-thinking by a male was remarkable, considering the position of women then, especially in rural India and Pakistan. This was when a woman after childbirth was kept in an outhouse, unable to participate in any activity in the household. She was not allowed into the kitchen, let alone cook during her menstrual cycle. A woman, according to Ronjit uncle, should not have to feel restricted in any way by her birth. I was to never forget his lessons on the equality of women, without her needing to act like a man to prove it.
Not only did I live my own life by these doctrines, I would also bring up my two daughters to think of themselves no less than any son I might have ever had. One day by my own initiation, my daughter would light her father’s funeral pyre at a public crematorium. I would not permit my son-in-law to do so, merely for being born male, while my daughters and I stayed home.
Every year at Durga Puja, the new idol was worshipped wearing Ma Durga’s personal set of real gold jewellery. She and her children were adorned in them on Shasthi, the first day of the puja. These were removed and safely put away in a trunk before the immersion on Dashami, the last of the five-day Puja, to be used the following year. Ma Durga was draped in a new, red Benarasi sari every year, which was then given to any woman in the family who was getting married the following year, to wear at her wedding. The new bride wore Ma Durga’s sari, like a daughter would wear her mother’s on her wedding day. This was in order to invoke the revered mother’s blessing to bestow on her strength and good luck. Ronjit uncle had immense faith in the strength of Ma Durga. He wished upon every woman to find that same strength and power within herself, with the belief that all women have an inherent potency, especially in times of crisis. This was the axiom by which I would lead my life.
For us, it was not merely the celebration of Durga Puja and womanhood, but of religious harmony during religious turbulent times. We did not think of the Puja only on religious lines, but as a coming together of all religions and cultures. Many Muslims and Christians, both students and teachers of the school as well as guests, attended the celebrations, even if they did not take part in the prayers and rituals.
Everyone who attended was served a meal, which had been consecrated as an offering to the Goddess. Though there were special cooks to prepare the meals on all five days, we students served. It was a fulfilling experience, as we participated wholeheartedly in the festival. It brought everyone together and was an opportunity to connect. In my case also, with my estranged father and his second wife, who came over a few times. Baba even offered to buy me a sari once, wanting to take me to the local market, but I firmly declined. I was not about to let him buy off his guilt on a whim.
The key excerpts… and the reviews of ‘Across Borders’ are in the link: https://shuvashreechowdhury.com/2019/08/14/excerpts-from-across-borders-in-the-words-of-the-protagonist-maya-2/
Sharing the Mahalaya – Birendra Krishna Bhadra (Full) chants in the link : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGClESAGmew
The significance of Mahalaya: http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/why-is-everyone-wishing-the-world-shubho-mahalaya-today-durga-puja-navratri/1/496660.html
PS: I took all these photos last (2018) Durga Pujo in Calcutta…I’m wearing an Assamese Mooga Silk Sari, and have often been told I could well pass for an Assamese 🙂 …’Across Borders’ is set much in Assam(India), Kolkata, Gwalior, Delhi and obviously a major part in Bangladesh.
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